The Boxtrolls and the Happy Ending of Class

The BoxtrollsI just watched The Boxtrolls. What a great movie it is. It is rare to see a film that is so unrelentingly true to itself — both in terms of style and substance. This is undoubtedly why it did not do that well financially. It’s the kind of film that seems like it ought to be appropriate for small children, but it is actually rather frightening to look at. But that makes sense because it tells a deeply disturbing story about the way that our society works.

The story is set in a place rather like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series — although without the magic, which is fine since many of those novels really don’t have much in the way of magic anyway. There are the humans above ground and the boxtrolls underground. But Archibald Snatcher, the exterminator for the town, really wants to get into the aristocracy. So he makes the town believe that boxtrolls are evil and violent creatures who eat humans. The boxtrolls are actually extremely meek — their only crimes being petty theft to get parts for the amazing devices they build.

Snatcher is a pathetic character. All he wants is what all Americans are taught to want: success. While he is definitely a demagogue for that cause, there is no other way open to him. The film presents the aristocracy as truly the useless rich. They don’t seem to do anything other than enjoy their lives. The four lords of the town choose not to spend the money from a fundraiser on a new children’s hospital, and spend it instead on a giant circle of brie cheese, called the “Briehemoth.” What’s more, the top lord, Portley-Rind, generally ignores his daughter and values his station in life more than her.

The townspeople also come off rather badly. There is, after all, no actual proof that the boxtrolls are anything except annoying petty thieves. The humans are only too willing to have their fears worked up and then to demand vengeance. And then, when they see that they have been manipulated by Snatcher, they immediately turn on him and demand vengeance on him. There are only five humans in the film who are sympathetic:

Two Children
Portley-Rind’s daughter is okay in the end. But she too is presented as a spoiled aristocrat. And Eggs is the orphaned boy who was raised by the boxtrolls as their own. He, of course, is the hero of the film.
Herbert Trubshaw
He is Eggs’ father, who is forced to give Eggs up to save him from Snatcher.
Two Henchmen
Snatcher has three henchmen, but two of them are fundamentally good: Trout and Pickles. The latter spends the whole movie thinking about good versus evil and questioning the rightness of their cause. Before he finally gets on the side of the boxtrolls, he speculates, “Goodness always triumphs over evil… I’m still 60 to 70% certain that’s us.”

In the end, goodness does triumph over evil. The two truly bad guys are vanquished. But more than that, in a subtle bit that is likely missed by most people, class itself seems to be vanquished. The symbol of the aristocracy were these white hats. At the end, we see Portley-Rind watching his “weird little angel” without his hat. We later see the hat in a trash can. One of the boxtrolls finds it, removes the feather from it, and discards the rest. Boxtrolls know value and all that could be salvaged from the aristocracy was a pretty feather. It’s clear enough.

Of course, you don’t need to see any of this. You can just see it as a nice story about a wrongly maligned minority group who are underutilized by the greater society — nothing at all to do with the real world. And to some extent, it is right to think of it in that way. Because it isn’t realistic. As I said: goodness does trimph over evil.

8 thoughts on “The Boxtrolls and the Happy Ending of Class

  1. It’s a wonderful movie. Did you stick with the credits long enough to see Trout and Pickles pondering about feeling they were being controlled by outside forces?

    I forgot half of the plot you recap here. The details and beauty of the claymation are so great, that’s what sticks in my memory. Yet I think they stick because the plot is very good. I saw another film by the same people, “Coraline,” based on a story by the vastly overrated Neil Gaiman, and the clay figures had far less expression in their faces. I wonder if claymation puppetry isn’t a bit like writing music for movies — the more imaginative the concept, the more people are inspired to do their best.

    I also thought of Pratchett. Especially at the “curds and whey” street name joke. He didn’t write it, but his sense of humor infected those who did. And isn’t that how this works? None of us mean anything as we live and die. We pass that joint of thoughts, feelings, perspectives, amongst ourselves and to anyone living longer.

    Oddly, the thoughts/feelings/perspectives which involve learning from experience, or simply imagining, that other humans are just as fragile and important, seem to resonate for far more decades/centuries than paeans to the SuperGreat. Unless you’re Ayn Rand.

  2. You mentioned the two things that I had meant to include but which didn’t fit. As soon as I head the “Curds and Whey” joke, I stopped the video and emailed it out to all my friends. I loved that — especially the rimshot. And yes, the tag after the credits was fantastic. I could get a whole article out of their conversation throughout the film. Some of it is very silly, “Have you ever known a foot to be evil?” (That’s a paraphrase — not shockingly, IMDb does not have it included in their quotes.) It moves onto questions of good and evil. And then once the issue is settled at the end of the film, they move to ontology. It’s absolutely brilliant!

    There is much more to say about the film. The boxtrolls themselves remind me of what Terry Eagleton wrote about Macbeth, “The witches are the heroines of the piece, however little the play itself recognizes the fact, and however much the critics may have set out to defame them… The witches are exiles from that violent order, inhabiting their own sisterly community on its shadowy borderlands, refusing all truck with its tribal bickerings and military honors.” The boxtrolls live in peace, together — building a great society. Ayn Rand would never understand. But then, she was a psychopath.

    • Really? The movie made no money? That’s hugely surprising. I thought any animated movie made bucketloads, parents with kids to amuse on weekends are a pretty captive audience.

      I see about two movies a year at second-run theaters (the popcorn’s much cheaper at those) and only if others tell me those movies are visually amazing. Otherwise, why not wait for video? Sometimes, what others tell me to watch isn’t any good (I’ve learned to distrust them when they say “this comic-book movie is better than all the other comic-book movies you loathed.”) They were correct with “Gravity” and “BoxTrolls,” though. Sometimes every frame of a film seems like people obsessed for years about making it look right.

      Making stuff look right isn’t the most important thing — think of latter-day Kubrick. And I’d put “Boxtrolls” ahead of “Gravity” as a story, even though “Gravity” involved much more complicated film technology.

      Still. I was a movie theater projectionist as a teenager, and it took me decades to stop complaining about movies being out of focus or improperly framed (how badly movies are framed by projectionists now — I could write five pages on that. Basically, movies are shot at a 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and all shown at 2:1 in theaters, cropping either the sides or the tops.)

      “Boxtrolls,” beyond the brilliance of its story, just looks good.

      I’m stunned it wasn’t more of a success.

  3. I’ll have to watch this one. You should check out The Book Of Life. Interesting animation style, good story and charachters. And my daughter really enjoys it.

    • Thanks for the rec, I’ll check it out!

      Looking at Wiki’s page about the folks who did “Boxtrolls” — it’s the old Will Vinton studios! Their headquarters is in Hillsboro, Oregon, the super-white-trashy suburbs of Portland where I grew up! Terrific!

      • You grew up in Hillsboro? I lived there for about a year during grad school. I liked it. But yeah: lots of white trash.

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